South Vancouver's downtown? Fraser Street & 49th Avenue has come alive (see slideshow)
From 1892 to 1929 when it merged with the Cities of Vancouver and Point Grey, South Vancouver was its own municipality. Today there is still a lot of evidence of that separation from its northern cousins (by north we mean north of the Ridgeway that runs along 37th Avenue, but the border ran along 16th avenue).
You can do a lot of digging on the history of South Vancouver, but the definitive source of these things has always been the admirable Chuck Davis. In his fantastic website at vancouverhistory.ca you can find out endless facts about the beginning of our little town on Canada's wet coast. Here's one passage on South Vancouver:
There was a time when the southern boundary of Vancouver was 16th Avenue. To the south was, appropriately, the huge municipality of South Vancouver. In 1908 a big chunk of South Vancouver seceded and called itself Point Grey.
The two places were quite different. South Vancouver could be called a "blue collar" suburb, whereas the Canadian Pacific Railway owned a third of Point Grey and intended to make its property as posh as possible. So when a local real estate boom collapsed about 1913 the fates of the two towns were different. South Vancouver ran into severe financial difficulties and from 1918 to 1923 had to be administered by the provincial government. Point Grey struggled through.
A push for amalgamation with Vancouver (which had been tried before) began and was approved by both South Vancouver and Point Grey. On January 1, 1929 the new city—with a population of about 240,000—was born. And on January 2—exactly 77 years ago today—the first meeting of its city council was held. The new mayor, W.H. Malkin, was now the head of Canada’s third largest city.
South Vancouver has always been disconnected from the north side, and it is still so today. A political map would show you this. The NPA dominates the south and west sides in voting, and centre and centre-right politicians most often carry the day on this side of town, Ujjal Dosanjh (who might be considered a "conservative" by NDP standards) notwithstanding.
When I sat on the Vancouver City Planning Commission we did some initial brainstorming for our work-plan, and it was then I proposed we take a closer look at strengthening the lot of the south side. I regularly heard complaints about a "lack of focus" to this expansive and diverse part of Vancouver. If you were an outside observer of the city you'd wonder if we all lived within a few clicks of False Creek, such is the emphasis we place on the north side.
Despite the considered efforts of the Marpole BIA to concentrate some of the planning department's attention on their historical neighbourhood, I think the real attention must go to the new hub of the south side, Fraser Street at 49th Avenue, also known as South Hill.
In fact, a new downtown is emerging in this part of the city, but you'd hardly know it if you spent any time at 12th & Cambie. What prompted this blog entry was a conversation had over wine in my backyard. A friend who stopped to grab a coffee late one evening at the Starbucks at 49th & Fraser commented she couldn't believe the buzz on the streets at 10pm on a weeknight.
"It was unbelievable," she remarked. "It was like being on Davie Street or in Yaletown. The streets were packed. The coffee shop had a line up. People were queued for the buses. I thought I was in another city." Amazingly, the community is situated nowhere near Skytrain nor the new Canada Line, and only it's served by criss-crossing bus lines.
The City of Vancouver Planning Department led by Brent Toderian has what it calls the Neighbourhood Centres program. As laudable as it is, Neighbourhood Centres has become a victim of political chicanery by a few, especially in the Norquay neighbourhood. One protester has made it his job to paper the community with fear-mongering misinformation, and endless letters to community newspapers. Frankly, the Planning Department was not prepared for the onslaught, and they practically buckled from the intimidation.
Part of the problem of the program was that the terms of reference (TOR) for deciding the order which the centres would be chosen were not flexible enough. According the TOR Neighbourhood Centres were...
invented in CityPlan to describe bringing together housing, jobs, shopping, services, and a public "heart" in a geographic location--noting that there was no one prototype, and that each community would customize the idea.
Using their metrics and a dollop of political common sense they carefully mapped out a list of boroughs (Fraser/South Hill is "L" on this list) that would attract special attention (and dedicated planning staff) where they would attempt to improve shopping, housing and public realm. If you were on the bottom of the list, you'd probably old and retired before the city came to help develop your neighbourhood centre.
The first neighbourhood centre was begun at Kingsway and Knight Street, and it has not entirely been a shining success. In spite of a new library and a soon to be opened grocery store, other commercial development in the area has been virtually non-existent.
Recently the Planning Department invited a speaker to come and comment on the city's work. During a Q&A Toderian supposedly asked what this speaker thought the city could do better. "Your downtown is great," was the response back, "but it's time you focused on the neighbourhoods outside of your core."
The changes happening at Fraser Street & 49th Avenue (full disclosure, I live just over 20 blocks from here, but not in the immediate community) have happened much more organically. On that corner are THREE banks. One of them recently expanded their hours to accommodate demand - yes, a bank did this. There is a local library, a video rental store and great grocery shopping among other services. The restaurants are passable but the coffee joints are attractive, and they just opened (horrors!) a new private liquor store in the area.
There is more hustle and bustle on this corner at all hours than many other parts of the city. It must also be pointed out that their is a completely unique diversity here seen almost nowhere else. It's known that the Chinese and South Asian community have not mixed well around Vancouver, but here it happens without complaint. Shops run by South Asians serve local Chinese families and visa-versa. Other ethnic groups such as Filipinos, Afghans and of course sundry Europeans young and old fill the streets.
Is it time for Vancouver to re-focus the Neighbourhood Centres program to respond to this kind of flux? Vancouver's south side has long been the "ugly kid sister" when it comes to how the city grows. It certainly deserves more love and attention from staff and from City Council. Maybe the bourgeoning city centre at Fraser and 49th Avenue presents that opportunity.
Take the CityCaucus.com poll: Does City Hall ignore Vancouver's south side when compared to the north?